While I’ve long since concluded that many of my impressions about what it means to be Southern should be restricted to my own particular, and particularly strange, life experience, there are a few commonalities upon which everyone can agree. One of these is the presence of sweet tea. While there are many different schools of thought on the preparation and relative sweetness of this ubiquitous beverage, the presence of iced tea, when it is offered, and how it figures into the concept of hospitality, home, and daily life are essentially the same whenever you are among us.
One of the primary indicators that you had passed beyond the bounds of the regional South was other people’s attitudes or lack of them concerning this most essential beverage. If you ordered sweet tea in a restaurant and the server informed you that there was “sweetener on the table” you knew immediately that this was Coventry–the land beyond the Pale–a barren world in which people actually thought you could make Sweet Tea by adding packets of sugar to your glass and stirring it. How could they possibly think that was how it was done? Where did they grow up, under a rock or something? Under a rock, as in a place where the proper way to make sweet tea wasn’t learned with your alphabet and grandma’s recipe for biscuits.
What would then happen is you’d quietly realize that this person didn’t have the sense God gave a rock, and you’d order something else. Heaven help you if you ordered a “Coke” in Pepsi country. But that’s another story. What most Southerners will naturally understand, even if they don’t drink tea themselves, is that the sweet must be added when the iced tea is prepared, or it won’t dissolve properly. That’s just gross, and a violation to the soul of sweet tea.
Southern Hospitality Has Nothing to Do With Trust
While it would seem that many of the stereotypical features of what the rest of the country sees as Southern Hospitality have died in an unseemly manner–with rudeness and a closed, suspicious air being what most often greets a stranger–this is not the place in which I grew up. Nor is it the attitude I was brought up to believe was right. There are plenty of ways to be guarded without being unkind or uncharitable. You smile, make eye-contact, and speak to others when in public. It’s like breathing. It’s just what you do. No arguments. Be sweet. Your bad day, bad mood, (whatever) isn’t the problem of strangers, nor is it, frankly, their business, so don’t keep it to yourself. All you’re doing by admitting everything isn’t sunshine and puppies is exposing your flank a potential enemy–or in the common parlance, “Showin’ your ass.”
When we offer hospitality to strangers, it’s not because we’ve just rolled off the turnip truck. The feeling of welcome is something that is extended as a matter of course. It is less a statement about what we think of you and more about what it says of us. Of course we’ll open our door to you. We’re also more than willing to brain you with a cast iron skillet if you get too familiar. When people mistake the gracious openness for a marker of gullible trust, then we have an issue. It leads to people putting on a harsher exterior, refusing to meet your eye or smile, a certain stinginess with words and actions. I encountered those who were more than willing to try and take advantage of my seeming permissiveness while I lived in Albuquerque. I see this as a fundamental disconnect with communication. I was taught to be as gentle as possible, even when saying “no.” But, especially in the case of women, when we are done playing it sweet, you’d best know your own way to the door, because it likely won’t end well for you if you’ve overstayed your welcome.
The Crucial Gesture
So how do sweet tea and southern hospitality even allign, you might ask. It’s not as if nowhere else has hospitality or customs that tend to go along with that idea. Well, it’s something I didn’t give a great deal of thought to until I was living somewhere else very far away. Fellow exiles from the South, living in Albuquerque and usually fellow graduate students, would exclaim with delight over that cold pitcher of tea. They would watch as I poured it into a tall glass–traditionally with ice and a wedge of lemon, but that varies, too, according to taste.
Now, by this late date, many places around the country offer proper sweet tea of some sort, and you can even buy a sad-bastard variation of actual tea in bottles. Having noted this, almost everyone loves my sweet tea, and there are obvious reasons why. First, I made it just right. It’s not too sweet, but just enough to mask the bitter tannins of strong tea. I follow a regiment–for it isn’t precisely a recipe, but there’s a certain process that must be observed for proper tea.
First off, you’re going to want to own a teapot. (I grew up calling kettles and glasses “tea kettles” and “tea glasses”, but in the case of the teapot, even preschoolers understand its dedicated purpose.) Then, choose your tea–“family sized” bags usually work best, though you can use loose tea if you feel up to straining it. Now, don’t be shy about letting the tea do its thing. Good sweet tea needs to sit a while. You should brew it until the pot is cool to the touch. This is especially crucial during a Deep South summer, when the tea pitcher (which must be glass) is in constant rotation. Pouring hot tea into a pitcher that is cold from the refrigeration will only get you a cracked pitcher. Also, you want the tea to be strong, because you’re going to be mixing it with a quantity of cold water.
Now, some people make sun tea or brew it in a saucepan on the stove. That’s fine if that’s how they like it best, but it will never taste quite right to me. Good sweet tea can’t be rushed. Optimally, the tea is allowed to ‘cure’ in the fridge for at least an hour before you serve it to your guests, your neighbors, or yourself. But we all understand if you simply can’t wait that long. It’s not that sweet tea is an incredibly special or expensive beverage anymore. Now, it’s more likely a version of water, but the roots of using tea leaves and sweetening it as markers of value toward a guest in your home remain.